Health Watch - Depression and the Brain

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The brain's structure may have something to do with depression.

The brains of people who suffer from major depression really are different, according to researchers at UT Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas. They found that there are more nerve cells in the part of the brain that controls emotion.

Researchers studied cross-sections of brains from deceased patients with major depressive disorder and compared them to brains from patients with other mental illnesses and patients with no diagnosed mental illness. A special computer imaging system counted nerve cells in the thalamus, the section of the brain that controls emotion. The brains of people with major depressive disorder had more than 30 percent more nerve cells, on average, in the area of the thalamus that regulates emotion than brains of people without depression. The thalamus also has other functions, but the increased nerve cell density was seen only in the area of the thalamus that's involved with emotion. This area was also physically larger in the brains of patients with depression.

Major depressive disorder involves a depressed mood and lack of pleasure or interest in normal activities for a prolonged period of time. Dr. Dwight German, the UT Southwestern psychiatrist who led the study, says this research helps improve understanding of patients with depression. They're often believed to just be in a bad mood and are told to get over it, but he says this is proof that their brains are structured differently. Understanding this may lead to improved medications for treating depression.

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July 2004

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